Gathering places

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(HOST) Vermont is people, but it’s also places. Commentator Tom Slayton is here with some comments on the special places that help make Vermont what it is.

(SLAYTON) Vermonters are known for being an independent bunch. But if you look beneath the surface, we’re also a social bunch as well.

Maybe the long winters are a part of it. Maybe it’s the land, with its steep hills and little valleys that try so hard to keep us apart from one another. Maybe it’s our rural past.

Whatever the underlying reasons, Vermonters do like to get together, and never more so than at this time of year.

Peter Miller’s new book of photographs on just that subject seems to catch a piece of Vermont’s soul. It’s called Vermont Gathering Places, and it was just published to help celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

Make no mistake about it, Vermont has some great places for people to gather in, places with history and presence. They are as elegant and austere as the Old West Church in Calais, as grand and ornate as the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, as historic as Hubbardton Battlefield, and as in-your-face now as Barre’s Thunder Road.

I think sometimes we forget that Vermont really is unique. To still have functioning downtowns where you can walk around – and find a parking place! – is pretty unusual in today’s hurry-up, plugged in, sophisticated urban world. Same thing with real, slow-paced country stores, farmer’s markets where you can ask the man who grew them which tomatoes taste best, and small-town baseball games where you can cheer the home team without being body-searched first.

I loved leafing through Vermont Gathering Places, just looking at Peter Miller’s striking black-and-white photos of faces and places. They said “Vermont” to me, loud and clear.

There’s the grinning, well-shorn crowd at Ken’s Barbershop in Randolph, the tenderness of little hands reaching up to pat a huge, gentle draft horse at Shelburne Farms, the concern and intelligence of the residents of Moretown at their Town Meeting.

There are the buildings you’d expect – Richmond’s magical Round Church, Old Labor Hall in Barre, the imposing, almost medieval brick facade of downtown Bellows Falls. But there are places and events that might surprise you – events as wintry as Brookfield’s Ice Harvest Festival and as warm as South Royalton’s band concerts, where Dick Ellis leads the Town band every summer Thursday night.

I’ve seen towns outside Vermont where America’s runaway automobile culture has destroyed any sense of place or community. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened to many of Vermont’s special buildings and places.

Town halls, general stores, Fourth of July parades, historic old churches and reconstituted industrial buildings – These are the places where the spirit of Vermont flourishes, the infrastructure of our own hand-made brand of democracy. They’re all important, and they are fragile. They need our attention, care, and money if they are to survive.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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